A Green and Pleasant Land - Part 4

However, in typical 'supply-demand' fashion that every student of economics knows, grain prices fell in the latter part of the 17th century, and farmers turned to other produce such as meat, fowl, fruit, vegetables, and dairy produce ('diversifying' as we would call it these days). Today, some farmers are turning to exotic salad crops, llama farming, and even tourism.

But this was also an age of improvements in agricultural techniques, ploughing equipment, livestock breeding and plant selection. Essentially one can say that by 1700 agriculture had generally been reorganised from a subsistence-based occupation into something more akin to an industry; a rising population also making it economically viable for landowners to drain and reclaim water-laden areas such as the Lincolnshire fens for grazing (although it was not until the 20th century that this area was used for arable farming). In the 17th and 18th centuries 'watermeadows', which provided grass when winter feed ran out, were developed; many of them using carefully controlled flooding of grassland through systems of sluices. Many watermeadows are now subject to environmental legislation because of their unique place in our rural landscape.

Technology and Ferment...
The 18th century saw the further march of progress in agriculture - but not all of it welcomed. Jethro Tull designed his seed drill [1701], Meikle a winnowing machine [c1720], Menzies a water-driven threshing machine [1732], and 'Turnip' Townshend developed a four-course crop rotation [roots such as turnips in year one, followed by barley in year two, then seed crops like clover and rye grass, followed by wheat in the final year], among many inventions which pushed agriculture's technological envelope. There also developed agricultural Societies and Shows which 'communicated' these technological advancements throughout agricultural and rural communities. Indeed, by the mid-18th century Britain was producing surpluses of farm produce. Still, more than three quarters of the population were involved in agriculture, or worked in the countryside employed in work in the wool industry [Britain's main export at the time].

Remember too, that the 18th century was also a time of canal building across Britain - and made the transportation of bulk goods like coal, pottery and grain over long distances, and to urban populations more practicable. For instance the Llangollen canal was specifically built for transporting produce from the hinterland.

By this time also, more sophisticated equipment and land management techniques seemed to indicate that 'enclosure' was a better way of farming the land, and subsequently thousands of 'Enclosure Acts' passed by Parliament from 1750 to 1850 changed the face of Britain's rural landscape. In the rapacious quest for land consolidation by large and often unscrupulous landowners these Acts frequently forced smaller farmers and allotment owners to sell to the big landowners - creating large numbers of landless and dispossesed people who eventually migrated to the cities in search of a living. There were frequently riots and civil disobedience against the Enclosures in the countryside.

In fact this period of rural history was one of the grimmest and most brutal. Many of the poorest labourers in the countryside were only able to 'make ends meet' because they could keep a cow, pig or geese on the 'common' land by right of renting a cottage within a village. They might also raise a few vegetables in the common fields, and gather fuel too. When the 'common' land became enclosed it destroyed the economic independence of these cottagers who now had to depend on their wages alone, being forced, as they were, to sell their livestock - the very means which had kept them from sinking into absolute poverty.

The value of real wages had fallen though. In 'Notes on the Agriculture of Norfolk' [1796] Nathaniel Kent noted that the price of provisions had gone up by 60% in the previous forty to fifty years, but wages by only 25%. Another authority suggested that between 1760 and 1813 wages rose by 60%, but the price of wheat by 130%. These figures need to be seen in context with the importance of common land usage... One writer in 1798 stating that out of 23,000 arable acres in Middlesex 20,000 were cultivated on the common-field system, the same writer also informing us: 'I have known thirty landlords in a field of 200 acres, and the property of each so divided as to lie in ten or twenty places.' The damaging impact of Enclosure was therefore potentially huge on the rural way of life.

One of the best documented cases of defiance to Enclosure was at Otmoor in Oxfordshire. There Lord Abingdon claimed rights of soil and sport on the public common. In his 'History of Oxfordshire' Dunkin gives an insight into Otmoor's usage: 'Whilst this extensive piece of land remained unenclosed, the farmers... estimated the profits of a summer's pasturage at 20s per head.... But the greatest benefit was reaped by the cottagers, many of whom turned out large numbers of geese, to which the coarse aquatic sward was well suited, and thereby brought up their families in comparative plenty'. Then came the Petition for enclosure.

Before 1774 a landowner did not even have to notify his neighbours that he was petitioning Parliament to redistribute their property. The landowner would simply petition - setting out the disadvantages of the current system and advantages of the alternative in the petition. You would simply wake up one morning to find your land was being taken from you. Such was the backlash to this iniquitous state of affairs that the House of Commons [HoC] eventually insisted that notice of any such petition should be pinned to the doors of churches of parishes concerned - but only for limited periods.

Such was the mood at Otmoor that on August 14th 1814 [reported in HoC Journal, Feb 17th 1815], those sent to affix the Notices on the Church doors of two Parishes involved were unable to do so because they were confronted by mobs armed with every description of offensive weapon, and prevented by violence and threats of immediate death. Local resentment about Otmoor simmered for years and, 15 years later, local inhabitants took to destroying all the fences. The Oxfordshire Militia were called and a troop of Yeomanry Cavalry, but the protestors failed to be moved, even when the Riot Act was read aloud. In the struggle which followed over 60 protestors were seized and 44 sent off to Oxford goal. As they were driven through Oxford's streets - where St. Giles' Fair happened to be taking place - the Oxford's inhabitants turned on the yoemanry: 'hurling brickbats, stones and sticks at them from every side'. As they turned into Beaumont Street the yoemen were overwhelmed by the mob and the 44 prisoners slipped away - unfortunately to be re-caught.

Anyone who vented their anger by damaging partitioning fences could expect harsh teatment. In the 'main features' of the Haute Huntre, Lincs. - Enclosure Act, 1767 the penalties for wilfull and malicious cutting, breaking down, burning or demolishing of any division fence were a fine of 5 to 20 for the first offence [or 1 to 2 months imprisonment], a 10 to 40 fine [or a 6 to 12 month sentence], and 'transportation for 7 years as a felon' for the third offence.

In the upland areas of Yorkshire and Derbyshire (but also in lowland areas), the great movement towards 'enclosure' is best exemplified by the miles of drystone walls which straddle the landscape; built by armies of wall builders who moved from job to job, landowner to landowner. At the same time an industry grew up in supplying the hedging shrubs such as blackthorn and hawthorn used for enclosure boundaries in other areas. Which lasts longest? Well, some hedges have been dated as 400 or 500 years old (many are much older), while the life of a drystone wall is reckoned to be about 200 years.


If you're one of the frequent visitors directed to this section by a search engine when looking for a history of the British countryside, take a moment to look around the rest of the website. We also have a piece on Britain's place names within the 'Places to Visit' section.

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